On a Thursday in late August of 2007, when I was forty-four and she was eighty-two, I saw my mother for what seemed sure to be the last time. (It was. She died the next night, when I was two hundred miles away.) The hospital bed where she lay was in Washington, D.C.; I had taken the bus from New York that morning, having talked by phone the night before with my sisters, who told me how bad things looked. Over the previous two years my mother had been in and out of the hospital with a bewildering series of infections, lung ailments, and more, and her stays often disoriented her. Lately, even when visiting her in the home she shared with one of my sisters, I could see that her mind was not what it had been. So as I walked into my mother’s hospital room, I did not have high expectations for our final time together.
I was in for a surprise. My mother had tubes in her nose and a plastic breathing device over her mouth, but for someone who couldn’t talk, she did a lot of communicating that day. When I smiled and said, “Remember me?” her eyes lit up and her eyebrows rose as she shook her head no; she was, on her deathbed, joking with me, as we had done with each other my whole life. I fought back tears as I told her that any generosity in me had come from her; soon, though, the lightness of her spirit got to me, and I was cheerfully reminiscing about all manner of things, such as the time she had to come to the hospital in the middle of the daywhen she should have been sleeping before sorting mail on the night shift at the post officebecause I had, rather uncharacteristically, ripped my hand open while putting it through a window in my high school. Now, my hand, with its prominent, twenty-eight-year-old scar, took hers, and I sang to her, songs we both liked: “Up on the Roof” by the Drifters, “If I Didn’t Care” by the Ink Spots. I squeezed her hand. She squeezed mine. Her eyes smiled up at me. It’s what I like to remember about my last moments with her.
I enjoy singing. I’m a whistler, too. (So is my older daughter. Recently, to my considerable satisfaction, she told me about an exchange with a high-school classmate of hers: “You’re, like, the best whistler I know,” the classmate said, to which my daughter replied, “That’s because you haven’t met my dad.”) In my kitchen is a clock/radio/CD-player my mother gave us years ago, and on it I like to play a jazz recording that I whistle along with while washing dishes: the version of “Love for Sale” on ’58 Miles, studio sessions of that year from a sextet led by Miles Davis. A shade under twelve minutes, it is one of the loveliest jazz performances ever committed to disk. Like a host, Mileson muted trumpetintroduces the song’s theme at the beginning and plays it again at the end, taking subtle, supple liberties with the bent-note wistfulness of the melody, in the only parts of the tune I can keep up with. Between those two passages come solos by the alto-sax luminary Cannonball Adderley, who had not only the sweetest sound in jazz but one of the fastest, and the tenor-sax god John Coltrane, whose signature wails are all that separate his bursts of breakneck virtuosity. Getting into the spirit, the pianist Bill Evans delivers a solo as linear as a horn player’s.
Like a host: I remember once watching The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson when one of his guests was Steve Martin, then in the “wild and crazy guy” phase of his career. In contrast to the genial laughter Carson inspired, the audience went crazy over Martin, who was outrageous from the beginning of his appearance to the end. At the time, in my teens, I wondered how Carson felt during those eight or ten minutes, as Martin’s over-the-top performance so dominated the show. But for years afterward, and more years after that, as Martin’s career entered valleys between his acts of self-reinvention, millions continued to watch Carson every night, welcoming his familiarity and the way he made what he did seem so easy. On “Love for Sale,” Miles performs a feat similar to Carson’s: hosting, preceding, and following the saxophone pyrotechnics of two of the most gifted jazz musicians who ever lived, Miles employs the art of deceptive simplicity; his outchorus, echoing his introduction, given added resonance by our memory of what came in between, is straightforward, moving, beautiful. I whistle along to the end, Miles’s solo echoing in my head when the others have faded.
Each autumn I do some hosting of my own: my college friend Tracy comes to visit for a weekend. Tracy is a big, warm-hearted man, a world-class talker, an enthusiastic consumer of music, movies, and dessert, and, like meand like every man named Tracy I have ever metan African-American. A Baptist, he doesn’t drink, but he doesn’t mind when I do. We spend at least part of Friday evening at my Brooklyn apartment, where he catches up with the members of my (interracial) family; on Saturday, he and I set out to conquer Manhattan.
This past year our jaunt fell on what would have been my mother’s eighty-sixth birthday. I thought from time to time of that, and of her, as we wound our way in the crisp mid-October air through the Manhattan streets. To be sure, ours is the nerd’s tour of New York: between long talks at this restaurant and that coffee house, we spent no small part of our time among the redwood-high shelves of Strand Books and the comics and sci-fi paraphernalia of Forbidden Planet (Tracy’s idea). That night we were seeing a jazz performance at a place I’d heard of but knew next to nothing about; the club was on the Upper East Side, so we headed up there early to look for a place to eat dinner before the show. Gazing through the windows of one bar-restaurant, using my hands for blinders, I searched for black facesjust to make sure this wasn’t the kind of place where friendly conversation would give way to cold stares the moment we entered. I said to Tracy, “I see a couple of brothers.” Then I said, as we were walking in, “I never talk like that.” Tracy smiled and said, “I bring out the best in you.” Soon we were shooting the breeze over a good meal.
One of the things Tracy and I have in commonis there a way to say this without seeming self-congratulatory?is that our deep interest in things black co-exists with an openness toward all kinds of people. For that reason we laughed, not with scorn but with appreciation, when we went around the corner to the performance. To begin with, one might reasonably guess that a jazz club called The Miles Café was named in honor of Miles Davis, but this one was named (at least in part) after the owner, the bald Japanese man who greeted us in the front room. From there we went to the performance area, which was not dim and catacomb-like in the way of many jazz clubs but fairly large, square, and well-lit, more like a room in a community center; about half of the seats were filled, many if not most by East Asians. Then there was the band. On drums was Jimmy Wormworth, a black man who was seventy if a day; on alto sax, Elijah Shiffer, a very young-looking white guy; on piano, Charles Sibirsky, a white man in middle age or beyond; and on tenor sax, the featured performer, a young man named Tacuma Bradley, who was obviously East Asian but, to me and Tracy, looked black as well. Later a female singer, Niranjana Shankar, who appeared to be Indian, made an appearance, and a tall, older East Asian woman, whom Tacuma introduced as his mother, sat in for a bit on piano. This U.N.-like band did wonderful renditions of jazz standards“In a Mellowtone,” “Daa-houd,” “Easy Living.” And then Shankar took the stage and let me have it, singing “Love for Sale.”
I am a fan of instrumental jazz. I have a passing familiarity with the lyrics of some of the songs that inspired my favorite nonvocal tunes; there are others I don’t know at all. And so it was not until Shankar began to sing that I learned what you probably know already, what I might’ve figured out if I’d given two seconds’ thought to that lovely song’s title: the actual subject of “Love for Sale.” If you want to buy my wares / Follow me and climb the stairs / Love for sale… I’m not puritanical, and I don’t think of myself as naïve (then again, who does?), but for just a moment, in my forty-seven-year-old heart, I felt like that kid of 1919 who shouted at the disgraced slugger Shoeless Joe Jackson, “Say it ain’t so!” Then the moment passed, and I began to think of the song’s lyrics as the mildest possible example ofreally, more of a metaphor forsomething I’ve become increasingly aware of over the years: the unpleasantness, misfortune, and plain evil that we don’t see even when it’s in front of our faces, the actual or potential chaos beneath everyday life’s smooth surface; the things, simply put, that we just don’t want to think about. Brooding about that led me to remember the very last thing that occurred between me and my mother.
When I walked out of her hospital room there were two people standing outside it: my niece, Elinor, then twenty-one, and my mother’s caregiver, Brenda, who had come to seem one of the family. I talked with them briefly and hugged them both, and then I turned to gowhether in search of my siblings or straight to the bus station, I can’t recall now. What I do remember is that while I was talking to Elinor and Brenda, I had the damnable luck to glance through the doorway of my mother’s room. The expression on her face was sadness itself, and she seemed to be looking right at me. Our eyes met for an instant, at least I think they did, and then I turned away and finished talking. After that I left. The next time I saw my mother she was in a coffin.
It was the right thing to do: by walking away from my mother’s room, I ensured that the memory of our last time togetherthe one she would take to her grave, the one I would carry forwardwas a good one, much better than anybody could have expected. It was a better memory, surely, than one in which I returned to her room and we both cried, helpless together in the face of her imminent death, which would comewhen? In two hours, two days, two weeks? How long could I, should I, have cried with her? What was left to say?
It was the wrong thing to do: however futile the effort to comfort her might have been, I should have gone back in there and tried, no matter how long it took. That was what I owed the woman who brought me into the world, who raised me by herself beginning when I was eleven, who paid for my college education on her postal clerk’s salary, who welcomed anyone of any race I brought home, who came to stay with my wife and me for a week when our first child was born. What kind of son, what kind of man, would not do that much?
I left the hospital without knowing which view was right. I didn’t know as I sat in The Miles Café, and I don’t know as I write this.
After the group’s performance I had the warmest interaction with jazz musicians I have ever experienced. I chatted with Shankar, who was very approachable; I talked with the friendly Sibirsky about the lyrics of “Love for Sale.” Tracy and I both talked to Wormworth, who turned out to be a comedian. “C.C. Sabathia!” he said, shaking Tracy’s handa reference to Tracy’s size and that of the black Yankees pitcher. He joked with us for another minute, then said he had to go get paid: “Time for dinero,” he informed us, “and I don’t mean Robert!” Then Tracy and I talked to Tacuma and his mother. I told them that that day would’ve been my mother’s birthday and added, truthfully, that it had done me good to see their mother-son interaction. Tacuma smiled in appreciation, and, tapping his chest with his fist, thanked us for coming out, saying that it warmed his heart to see us all.
As we left them, Tracy suggested that my seeing Tacuma and his mother had not been an accident, because it was what I had needed. He believed that because he’s a Christian; I didn’t because I’m not. I am sometimes tempted to think that there is a reason for everything that happens, but I think my believing would be based on my very desire to do so, not on objective reality.
Each of us, I feel, has a duty to try to see things as they are, not as we would like to think they are. But each of us must also, of course, make it through the day. It is possible, where my mother is concerned, that I failed at the very last moment. But I had a good relationship with her, and she knew I loved her. I had to remember the first fact without losing sight of the other two, and without forgetting what all of them together signified: that I was, after all, merely human. I tried to take all that with me as I left the warmth of the jazz club and headed out into the New York night.
Clifford Thompson is the editor of Current Biography. His novel, Signifying Nothing, is available as a paperback and e-book from amazon.com.